Image description: A notecard hanging from a string. Text reads: Do you like me?

(This is an edited and expanded version of a post that was shared with my patrons one week early. If you’d like early access to my posts, and the ability to suggest changes or make comments before they go up on my blog, consider backing my Patreon!)

On April 9, 2018, I wrote to Jonathan, who has been a patron since the beginning of the project (and a partner for 10 years!), “Your birthday is coming! What do you want me to write about this year?”

He wrote back almost immediately, “Caring what others think.”

I like decisiveness.

And I like this topic.

He continued:

Just to expand on the topic…

The shame I feel over caring what other people think is difficult to navigate. When I was a kid I was told, over and over again, that I was just supposed to be myself and not care what other people think.

That sentiment really oversimplifies things. On the one hand, I get it. Caring too much about what other people think can really paralyze you. It gives other people a lot of power over you. It creates a lot of pressure, sometimes, to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. It stunts your ability to develop your own ideas, your own interests and your own destiny.

Caring what others think is seen as a sign of weakness. It means you don’t have your own personality; you’re two-faced; you lack principle and your own moral compass. We don’t trust people who care what other people think because we think of those people as fake. Caring what others think “too much” can be inaccurately pathologized as mental disorders such as paranoia, bi-polar and attention seeking disorders.

On the other hand, all of the non-vocal messaging you get is that it’s actually really, really important to worry about what other people think. Your social networks depend on what other people think about you. Your job depends on what other people think about you. Your ability to access resources depends on what other’s think of you.

It’s a cruel myth that only the weak care what other’s think. Corporations literally invest billions in controlling what other people think about them. Politicians direct a considerable amount of their power and capital towards carefully curating their public image. Many of our public institutions operate entirely based on people’s impression of the institution.

Clearly, it’s important to carefully balance the stock you place in what other’s think and your own self-confidence and commitment to be “true to yourself” despite social pressure. It’s complicated.

I’m out of balance over it. Caring what other’s think causes me anxiety. When I feel like someone is upset or angry with me I fixate on that. When I feel like someone thinks poorly of me or has a negative impression of my skill set it completely eats away at me. It makes conflict resolution very difficult for me to manage sometimes. It also means that I sometimes have a hard time being honest and authentic not only with the people around me but also with myself. I’m struggling to find a way to bring that into balance. I think, over the years, I’ve developed real strengths because of my obsession with what other’s think. I’m very keen to non-verbal communication and a pretty empathetic person. I’ve learned a lot about social cues and can pick out social patterns better than most. Meeting expectations is important to me and, when I have proper balance in my life, I’m pretty good at exceeding expectations because I care what other people think. I think my compassion also stems from caring and that’s not something I care to lose.

So, I think the concept of caring what others think is one that could really benefit from some exploration. It’s one of those deceptively simple ideas that actually has a lot of layers and a lot of depth to it.

After this post was suggested, this topic kept coming up. And it kept coming up in ways that really supported Jonathan’s insight into the way this idea “has a lot of layers and a lot of depth to it.”

It showed up in narrative therapy sessions, where one of my community members identified “caring what others think” as something that is both a cherished characteristic that allows them to bring empathy and compassion into their relationships, and also something that keeps them from acting on their own desires and needs.

Then it showed up in that same way for another community member. They care a lot about what other people think of them, and it’s both something they value in themselves and also something that they experience as a block or obstacle when trying to care for their own needs.

Then it showed up in a similar was for a third community member, who also talked about this particular experience in work contexts, where caring about what coworkers think is a skill that keeps them from oversharing and allows them to maintain boundaries, but also has them feeling isolated sometimes.

This idea of “caring what others think” became the basis of the “too much of a good thing” project that I’m undertaking as part of my master of narrative therapy and community work program (Note: I am still looking for participants for the project, so if it sounds interesting to you, get in touch!) Because the idea was growing so much, it seemed impossible to come back to this original writing prompt. I felt that I needed to get the whole project done in order to present something worthwhile.

(Sounds a bit like I’m caring about what others think of my writing, right? This shows up frequently for me, and it means I generally publish work that I’m proud of, and I don’t share nearly as much as I would like to. For the next while, I’m working on challenging this urge towards perfection and I’ll be sharing things that are a little less intensely edited. We’ll see how it goes!)

In May, this idea of “caring what others think” showed up in my own life in a big way when I was suddenly thrown headfirst into a situation where “what people think about me” became something I had to care about intensely. I was feeling (and being) observed and critiqued in personal and impactful ways. Writing about this topic felt more and more impossible.

It was everywhere! Overwhelming!

I decided to come back to this post, even though the “too much of a good thing” project is still underway, because “caring what others think” seems critical on its own. Although this topic fits within a larger framework, it deserves its own examination and exploration. As Jonathan pointed out, “it’s a cruel myth that only the weak care what other people think.” But that myth is everywhere. It’s one that impacts most of us in one way or another.

Ask the Internet

If you google “caring what other people think,” you’re likely to get a whole bunch of results with instructions for how to stop, and often with language that pathologizes or shames people who do care what other people think.

In one post on Psychology Today, the author writes, “One of our more enduring social fallacies is the idea that what others think of us actually matters. While this notion clearly has primal evolutionary roots, its shift from survival instinct to social imperative has become one of our greatest obstacles to self-acceptance.”

I have questions about this.

Is it a fallacy that what others think of us actually matters?

What my boss thinks of me matters to my employment.

It matters what the community members who consult with me think of me. It impacts my efficacy as a narrative therapist. Some research suggests that the best indicator of success in the therapeutic relationship is the “therapeutic alliance” (meaning the positive relationship between the therapist and the person consulting them). One review of the literature found that multiple studies “indicated that the quality of the alliance was more predictive of positive outcome than the type of intervention.” If that’s the case, it matters a whole lot to my work as a narrative therapist what people think!

I also wonder about the “primal evolutionary roots” of caring what people think. I am skeptical of most evolutionary psychology, given its many problems. (For one view on these problems, this problematically hetero- and cisnormative Scientific American article is a good place to start.) I particularly question this “primal” nature of the issue given the very contemporary context within which so many of us do care what others think.

For marginalized individuals especially, caring what people think can keep us alive. Caring what others think means knowing, deeply and intimately, what the dominant expectations are so that we can do our best to adapt to them.

For neurodivergent folks on the autism spectrum, caring what others think is part of the training – look at the language used in the popular Social Thinking program. (Content note on this link at the Social Thinking site for unsettling language about autistic kids. If you just want to read critiques, many of them by autistic writers, this facebook thread is full of information, but also upsetting to read.) “Expected” and “unexpected” behaviours, where “unexpected” means that the child hasn’t responded to the “hidden rule” and could be making people “uncomfortable.” Talk about teaching kids to care what others think!

On a more positive note, caring what other people thinks can foster a sense of being “accountable to the whole,” to quote my friend and mentor Stasha. This accountability to the whole means that we maintain an awareness of how our actions impact each other, and when Stasha made this comment I wondered whether a more intentional and compassionate relationship with the idea of caring what people think might be one way to challenge the individualism and isolation that our current capitalist context enforces.

Another article, this time from Lifehack, quotes Lao Tzu, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” and concludes, “Once you give up catering to other people’s opinion and thoughts, you will find out who you truly are, and that freedom will be like taking a breath for the first time.”

Again, I have questions.

The Socially Constructed Self

Is “who I truly am” really something that happens entirely in isolation, entirely internal and apart from other people and what they think? I don’t think that it is.

I brought this question to one of the narrative therapy groups I’m part of, and I was very worried about what the group would think of me. I wrote, “This is an absolutely ridiculous question because I feel like I have read *at least* seven different version of this idea, but I’ve been searching and failing, so, halp?! I am looking for a good, comprehensive-ish, ideally readable-by-non-academic-audiences (but I’ll take an academic article also) resource on the idea of the self being shaped by context and relationships.”

I felt ashamed of the fact that I needed help, but the responses that I got were incredibly validating!

One person commented to say they were following, and I said, “You have no idea how relieving it is to realize I’m not alone in this.” They replied, “I think one of the most dangerous things a therapist can do is let their ego in the way of asking questions – well, that’s what I tell myself as I manage my “imposter syndrome” 😉”

Someone else said, “So glad you asked!! I need just the thing and didn’t think of asking here!”

So many of us caring so much what each other would think, and finding solidarity and companionship in realizing that we’re not alone in it. Although the way that anticipatory shame keeps us silent is a problem, I think that the shared experience is valuable. And normal. In that group, we are all either practicing therapists or students of narrative therapy or both, and we still care deeply about what other people will think of us. We can respond to the ways in which this caring becomes a problem without demanding that we suddenly cease caring entirely. And without accepting that we are somehow incomplete because of it!

One of the responses was from someone linking me to this resource by Ken Gergen.

Gergen’s “Orienting Principles” are here (from the link – I highly recommend following the link and listening to his talk!):

We live in world of meaning. We understand and value the world and ourselves in ways that emerge from our personal history and shared culture.

Worlds of meaning are intimately related to action. We act largely in terms of what we interpret to be real, rational, satisfying, and good. Without meaning there would be little worth doing.

Worlds of meaning are constructed within relationships. What we take to be real and rational is given birth in relationships. Without relationship there would be little of meaning.

New worlds of meaning are possible. We are not possessed or determined by the past. We may abandon or dissolve dysfunctional ways of life, and together create alternatives.

To sustain what is valuable, or to create new futures, requires participation in relationships. If we damage or destroy relations, we lose the capacity to sustain a way of life, and to create new futures.

When worlds of meaning intersect, creative outcomes may occur. New forms of relating, new realities, and new possibilities may all emerge.

When worlds of meaning conflict, they may lead to alienation and aggression, thus undermining relations and their creative potential.

Through creative care for relationships, the destructive potentials of conflict ma be reduced, or transformed.

Two things jump out at me particularly: that worlds of meaning are created within relationships (which I take as a direct contradiction of the idea that we “find out who we truly are” only outside of relationship and others influence), and that together we can create alternatives.

Individualism

On a similar note, I also have questions about why freedom is so individualized, if there is so much creative potential in relationships.

Of course, these articles that advise us on how to stop caring what others think of us aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t have relationships, and treating them as if they are would be setting up a straw man that isn’t there. However, I think that there is an individualist discourse present in these articles that suggests that we can have relationships without caring what the people in our relationships think of us, and I think that discourse invites a lack of accountability and collaboration, and suggests that there is a core self that exists apart from the self within relationships. I disagree with this idea.

Melanie Grier, another wise friend, said:

I think a good question to always ask yourself is *whose* approval you are seeking and how it serves you. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve returned to school and have been working to let go of the desire for approval from my parents, understanding that as a practically impossible pursuit.

It feels good to be liked… and I think if that is your motive, just to be liked for the dopamine rush it provides, it can cause an issues once your self-worth can easily become interconnected with the external experience completely independent of you.

But the desire for approval from valued mentors, friends, partners, peers can serve us differently – it can help us build functional, healthy relationships where both parties are mutually invested in behaving in a way that results in approval or liking. It holds us accountable in a way, wanting to do right by a person. And I think we often grow by keeping expectations of each other reasonable. Working to feel validated, if consciously motivated, can help us do awesome things, I believe…

I find even knowing that people dislike me helps me self-reflect. It can again clarify values, sometimes discovering where you’re not willing to budge.

A lot of this resonates for me, because there are many elements of society that will never like or approve of me, because I am non-binary, I am bisexual, I am polyamorous, I am AFAB and often am read as femme. When I care what these people think of me (in the sense of wanting them to like or approve of me), I am caught in an impossible trap because the only way to gain that approval is to change who I am. However, even there I do care what they think because what they think points to systemic and structural injustices. I care what they think because I want to change the social context within which those thoughts of transantagonism, heterosexism, femmephobia, and all the rest (as well as all the injustices that I don’t face as a white settler with thin privilege, English language privilege, educational privilege, etc.)

Melanie also said, “I think we are too interconnected as a species and biosphere to be an island. We impact each other too much.”

I agree.

In yet another article, Tinybuddha suggests that, “Worrying about what other people think about you is a key indicator that you do not feel whole without the approval of others,” and, “When you are truly content with who you are, you stop being concerned with whether or not other people like you.”

The same types of questions come up.

Why does caring about the approval of others mean I don’t “feel whole”? Why can’t I “feel whole” while also caring about approval? Why is the approval of others automatically dismissed, when it is critical to having consensual and mutual relationships? What is active consent, other than enthusiastically and intentionally caring about getting the approval of the person you’re interacting with before taking an action?

This connects to Melanie’s points about whose approval we’re seeking, and to the idea of certain types of approval being entirely unavailable. Social isolation is recognized as a source of pain and distress, and social isolation is tied directly to what people think of us (whether we are likeable, friendable, loveable). And yet, the idea that we shouldn’t care what people think seems to greatly privilege individualism – being ourselves, being okay with being ourselves, even if that means being by ourselves.

My questions in writing this post kept coming back to why we valorize individualization. Why is it better to be an island? Why do we even believe we can be islands?! Isn’t there a whole song about how that doesn’t really work out? Sure, it may be true that the rock feels no pain, and the island never cries, and maybe that’s what we are hoping for when we distance ourselves from caring what others think. But that’s not the life that I want for myself.

Melissa Day points out that this valuing of individualization only happens within certain contexts. She writes:

[W]e fetishise individualism only within certain prescribed boundaries. Think of the hipster – I was into that before it was cool. Okay, great, you’re an individual. But someone who’s into completely different music/food/subjects and isn’t doing it to be “cool” or doesn’t have those become popular isn’t looked on as a heroic individual, but rather a weirdo or a freak (and yes, those words hurt and were chosen specifically). The sense I get is that there are two types of “don’t care what others think.” 1. They feel secure enough that who they are or what they like falls in society’s norms that they can be individual but still part of the whole 2. They like what they like and it falls so far outside society’s norms that caring about what others think really isn’t an option. This is written from the perspective of someone who had two choices growing up – change who you are and conform or stop caring about other people, be yourself, and take the lumps that followed.

I think… that it ties into this idea of everyone is special and unique. I would think the end goal of being different comes from a place of “If I am the same as everyone else, I will not be Special and Special is good.”

We are, collectively, put into a complex conundrum – we must care what other people think, and we must fit in, but we must do it in exactly the right way or we risk deviating too far from the norm and being punished for it.

As NoirLuna points out, “I feel like life would be way easier if blending in had been one of my options, but I figured out young it wasn’t, and managed to stop trying. (Which was for the good.)”

Wanting to Be Liked

Why is it a problem to care whether or not people like me?

I want my friends, my family, my lovers, my companions on this journey- I want them to like me!

I want them to like me because I know that I tend to spend time with people that I like. I am invested in relationships with people that I like. And I assume that other people are, if not exactly like me, then at least a little bit like me. So if my friends like me, they’ll want to spend time with me. They’ll want to be close to me. And I am invested in that outcome.

I have found that people are more likely to spend time with me when they like me.

And the reverse is also true. I have found that I don’t enjoy spending time with people that I don’t like, and I don’t enjoy spending time with people who don’t like me!

But then again…

There is a way of caring about what others think that can invite trouble. As Jonathan writes, “I’m out of balance over it. Caring what other’s think causes me anxiety. When I feel like someone is upset or angry with me I fixate on that. When I feel like someone thinks poorly of me or has a negative impression of my skill set it completely eats away at me. It makes conflict resolution very difficult for me to manage sometimes. It also means that I sometimes have a hard time being honest and authentic not only with the people around me but also with myself.”

Many folks can relate to that.

This topic has been challenging to write about because I, too, care “too much” about what other people think. I want people to like me. I want people to think that I am a good and worthy person. I want people to think that I am competent and capable.

The problem, as I have come to understand it in the process of sitting with this prompt, is not necessarily in caring what others think (I think I’ve been clear that I don’t consider that a problem!) but rather, when I create a totalizing narrative of myself based on what other people think. What I mean by that is, if I can only be “a good person” when everyone else agrees that I am so, that’s a problem. It’s a problem because no person is good all the time, no person can be.

Similarly, if I want to be a “worthy person” and I can only perceive myself to be that when everyone thinks I am, that’s a problem!

Ditto competency.

Ditto capableness.

The problem, in my mind, is when there is only room for a single story of the self. When that story is the one told by someone else’s opinion of us (including their opinion that we can only be “whole”, or “free”, or “authentic” when we don’t care what others think), it invites so much shame to the table. It invites us into so many feelings of personal failure. We need many stories of ourselves – stories of being good and stories of being less good, stories of being liked and stories of being less liked, stories of success and stories of growth. It is okay to care what other people think. It is okay to be conflicted about caring what other people think. It is okay to actively reject what other people think. There’s space. We need that space.

I struggled with this topic because, as much as I reject the idea that caring what other people think means I am somehow “not authentic” or “not whole” or “not free”, I have internalized the idea that I shouldn’t care what other people think. That it “isn’t any of my business” and that “the only thing I can control is myself.”

But this framing grates.

It feels wrong.

It feels far too individualizing.

Of course I care what people think of me! And so do the community members who consult me, and so does the patron who requested this topic, and so might you.

The idea that we should be fully autonomous, insulated individuals, small islands of personhood operating on our own, without caring or being moved by other people’s opinions… I think that’s a really harmful and hurtful idea.

That doesn’t mean that I am governed by other people’s thoughts, or that I am responsible for their thoughts, or that I am incomplete because I care about their thoughts. It means that, as Ken Gergen outlines, my reality (my worlds of meaning) is created through collaboration and context. When I engage meaningfully and intentionally with the people around me, including what they think of me and my actions, a lot of good in my life is made possible by this caring.